Tom Frieden at NPC

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke global public health strategy Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Photo by Susan Polan

Prevention is the last thing public health professionals should worry about, says the leader of the nation’s federal public health bureau.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained this unusual philosophy  — prevention being the final piece rather than the starting point — Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. His talk focused on three leading dangers to national health security, including “disease created by bad guys,” one day before the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“What do we do amidst this perfect storm of vulnerability? Find, stop, prevent,” Frieden said. “If you’re logical that’s [out of] order. Actually, the way public health works is by trying something out, figuring something out, then taking what we learned to change practice and policy.”

Frieden talked about what happens when public health works. One ideal response last year in rural Uganda may have prevented global outbreak of pneumonic plague: After three people died in rapid succession, a local hospital quickly contacted CDC, enabling for rapid testing for infectious disease. After quickly diagnosing that one of the victims tested positive for plague, Ugandan researchers provided preventive medicine to more than 130 people within 12 hours, and within the next 24 hours dusted every hut in the community to kill highly contagious bacteria.

“And that fundamentally is what we try to do at CDC, not just for plague in Uganda, but for foodborne disease here, for hospital-associated infection care, for many of the diseases and conditions that we are paying for but we don’t have to,” Frieden said.

His top global health threats included:

  • emerging infectious diseases, recently including H7N9 influenza and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or the MERS coronavirus;
  • drug-resistant tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance, which Frieden said is spreading in hospitals around the U.S.; and
  • intentional diseases, such as anthrax and plague, which can be used as biological weapons when infectious organisms are in the wrong hands.

But there’s more to public health than infections. “Tips from Former Smokers,” a 2012 federal campaign against tobacco use funded by the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, caused 1.6 million Americans to attempt quitting and more than 200,000 Americans to quit  following the three-month effort.

“That means tens of thousands of Americans will not die early deaths from tobacco because of that ad campaign,” Frieden said.

View a transcript of Frieden’s discussion at CDC online.